I’m definitely not a prolific Netflix binger. That said, one series that has commanded my devotion is Ozark – a US drama about the moral debasement of a well-to-do family that suddenly becomes less 2.4 kid, white-picket fence, and more murder-plotting money launderers. Think Breaking Bad at the lake-house.
The latest instalment (season three) has been a highlight of the series, with the stand-out acting performance (at least in my opinion) coming from Tom Pelphrey, who plays the bi-polar brother of the devil-in-a-red-dress matriarch, played by Laura Linney.
Maybe I found Pelphrey’s performance so powerful because it struck a chord that’s been building in me over the past few weeks. A feeling of frustration, bewilderment, when a situation seems so abnormal to you personally, but the casual reaction of those around you makes you start second guessing your judgment.
As the salt-of-the-earth, sensitive brother, Pelphrey’s character becomes increasingly disturbed not only by the extent of the serious criminality that characterises the life of his sister and those around her, but also the casualness with which they seem to treat it. As someone who, due to his condition, is accustomed to misjudging situations, his attitude swings from reluctant, white-knuckle acceptance (“maybe I’m over-reacting”) to fierce, unrestrained defiance against the depravity of the situation he’s being told to accept as normal.
How COVID-19 has challenged what is “normal” in our lives
In our own lives, the last few months have required us all to change some key assumptions about what is normal in our world…what is real and what is false; what is possible and what is impossible.
For instance, until it happened, I didn’t think it was actually possible that the president of the United States could retain that position after publicly encouraging people to poison themselves. I just assumed that the US governmental model would have caught that scenario, resulting in his or her standing down.
I didn’t think it was actually possible for the government to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars, almost overnight. Regardless of how urgent the need was. I assumed that there would be procedural and/or market limits on how much debt the central bank could take on, and how quickly it could do so.
And I didn’t think it was actually possible for share-markets to seemingly stabilise at levels close to where they were 18 months ago, or for us to be able to maintain an OK standard of living (putting aside the impacts of social isolation), despite mass unemployment and the economy going into care-taker mode. I assumed that the performance of stock markets, and the quality of our lives (including access to food and services), would be much more closely correlated to the employment status of the population.
(As I drove to an appointment around Friday lunchtime, there were still large lines outside Centrelink, the Australian welfare office.)
Clearly these assumptions I had made, which, to varying degrees of importance, contributed to my world view, were wrong. False. They have been proven so by the events of the last few months.
At times I have felt like screaming, just like Pelphrey’s character, “This isn’t right!…It doesn’t make sense!!” After all, I didn’t come up with these assumptions myself. I adopted them from the prevailing narratives surrounding news-stories that I have lived through, like the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which told us loud and clear for the last 12 years how fragile financial markets were. And how, but for a monumental bail-out from the US government, the failure of one big bank could have ruined the entire system.
I didn’t come up with these assumptions myself. I adopted them from the prevailing narratives surrounding news-stories that I have lived through, like the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which told us…how, but for a monumental bail-out from the US government, the failure of one big bank could have ruined the entire system.
Well, the bail-out (of banks) that we associate with the GFC, at USD $700 billion, has now been dwarfed by the COVID-19 stimulus measures deployed by the United States, currently sitting at well over USD $2 trillion.
So, now what do we make of the GFC and the noisy narratives that came with it? For example, has the COVID-19 response inadvertently demonstrated that the US government could have done more in the way of relieving the economic pain that was felt in the wake of the GFC, especially by lower income earners?
Moving forward with a new world-view
There is a lot to digest from the dismantling of just one commonly held conception. Let alone many, within the space of a few weeks. We will (and should) have lots of questions, which, until answered, will cause discomfort, both individually and as collective societies.
We will eventually work our way through this discomfort, in finding a new (and hopefully improved) world view. But in order to do so we’re going to need to hear some pretty convincing explanations from some pretty compelling experts. We’ll need strong leadership from brave, economically-savvy and socially attuned individuals.
As individuals, we can look for opportunities on how we can contribute to this process of making sense of what’s been revealed, and – perhaps more importantly – how these new “truths” can be applied in a way that serves us better into the future.